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Helping Kids Reframe Tough Moments For Social And Emotional Growth

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It’s vacation week here in MA, and yesterday morning I picked my kids up from a sleepover at a friend’s house. When I asked my youngest how it went he waivered, and then said in a defeated tone “not good”. Now I know my youngest very well, and I’ve learned over time that there are always important nuances to understanding how he experienced a moment. As child development expert Dr. Michael Thompson has written about, as a concerned parent it’s all too easy to “interview for pain” in a moment like this, and immediately have heard my child’s discomfort as a chance to become alarmed. So fighting the intense urge to freak out and rescue him I responded with “Tell me more, buddy…” Here’s as close to a verbatim transcript as I can come up with, having been driving when it took place:

Me: Did you have fun after I dropped you off?
 
My Younger Son: Yeah, we played football and video games.
 
Me: Did you like the pizza that they served for dinner?
 
My Younger Son: I had two slices.
 
Me: How was it sleeping in a different place?
 
My Younger Son: [silence]
 
Me: Can you tell me about that?
 
My Younger Son: Well, it was going ok until we got into bed, and then I started to get scared because the room was too dark and I missed you and Mommy.
 
Me: So what did you do then?
 
My Older Son: We heard him crying so we tried to tell him that it was all right, but he couldn’t stop, so we went and got [the friend’s] mom. We told her that the room was too dark, so she moved a nightlight to his side of the room.
 
Me: And did that help?
 
Both of them: YES!
 
Me: And did you then go to sleep and sleep ok?
 
My Younger Son: Totally
 
Me: So aren’t you glad that you didn’t ask to go home?
 
My Younger Son: Well…actually, when I was crying I asked to go home, but [the friend’s] mom helped me relax, and then I was glad that I stayed.
 
Me: Wow. That sounds like an amazing moment for all three of you guys. I’m really glad that you had this problem and found a solution. Isn’t that amazing?
 
My Younger Son: Isn’t what amazing?
 
Me: That the sleepover had a tough moment, your brother and your friend supported you and didn’t make fun of you for crying, and when they couldn’t help enough they got an adult to help you figure out how to solve the problem. Now if this happens in the future you can remember that you’ve already dealt with this before, and made it work.
 
My Younger son: Oh, yeah. This sleepover was amazing. I had the best time, Dad.
 
Me: I’m proud of both of you, and here’s why…

I now have no doubt that both of my kids will remember this sleepover for quite some time. My youngest will remember it as a situation where he faced adversity, and ultimately, with support from the people around him, he overcame the momentary struggle and experienced success. My oldest will remember it as a time when he and his best buddy showed empathy for someone else – and became active problem solvers – and received praise for doing so. I’d like to offer serious thanks to their friend’s mom who, rather than calling me to have me rush over and save him, helped my son learn how to confront what was bothering him, and become a stronger, more resilient person. What a great parent! 

In addition, I see this as an incredible teachable moment that both of my boys almost missed. I know the family where the sleepover took place incredibly well, and I could also see when I arrived that morning that everyone was having a blast. And yet on the car ride home both of them were ready to declare the sleepover a disaster, simply because one of them had encountered a short moment of adversity. It wasn’t until, as their parent, I was able to help them put these events into a larger context that they were able to view their adventure as one of triumph and personal growth. To help them understand that this disruptive moment was actually a positive involved a technique called reframing, and it’s an important tool in the toolkit that our counselors use every day at our summer camp in New Hampshire.

Reframing is a way of creating a new understanding of (often negatively perceived) events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives. When I helped my youngest remember that the majority of the sleepover was positive, that was reframing. And when I helped him see that because he dealt with a challenge that night, and got through it, that he was now a stronger person – well, that was a major reframing for him. He proudly went on a different sleep over the following evening, feeling like he could take on the world. What a great life experience that could have been lost if that one tough moment hadn’t been reframed for him!

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Our summer camp teaches children 21st century skills like independence, resilience, leadership, problem solving and collaboration. To do this, our counselors not only provide our campers with summers of fun and friendship making, but help them learn to persevere over the obstacles that they encounter in sports, arts, bunk life, and navigating the world around them. Their social and emotional growth, along with their growth as artist and athletes, stems from their learning to be resilient in these challenge moments.

As a key component of teaching these crucial 21st century skills, our counselors help our campers reframe their understanding of what to do when confronted with challenges, and how to put them in a larger context. During the summer, our highly trained counselors use this technique every day. It helps our campers understand and move past their short moments of frustration, anger, or embarrassment to instead see what can be learned from a situation, and how to grow from it. It helps diffuse tense situations, has the power to turn a negative moment into a positive, and is ultimately necessary for teaching children how to remain resilient when life hands them a moment of adversity.

Camps Kenwood and Evergreen is a brother-sister summer camp in Wilmot, New Hampshire. Our mission is to provide the most developmentally impactful experience to young people who will be tomorrow’s leaders and innovators.

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